By Jamie McLennan. Originally posted at Re: wordings
Yesterday I attended Govcamp, part of Net Change Week at the Mars Centre in downtown Toronto. The topic of the day was the latest technological hot potato in government, open data. All three levels of government in Canada are making more and more of their data available to the public online. The hope is this will lead to increased transparency and enable the private sector to use this data for some intriguing (and useful) purposes.
But some important questions came up over the course of the day.
How will the data be extracted? Government data is extensive, exhaustive, and often well buried. Bizarrely, the computer programs that store the data are sometimes incompatible with the software used to extract it. Also, government departments can be pretty proprietary when it comes to their data, and before it gets out to the public there may be more than a few regulatory hurdles to jump over. One of the sessions yesterday was all about the ‘shadowy world of the socialintrapreneur.’ A panel of four brave public servants recounted their experiences (sometimes in hushed tones) tunnelling under and pole-vaulting over rules and regulations in government in order to “help the system speak with more voices” (i.e. get things done). Open data is being touted as a way to bring the people and their government closer together. But folks in government might not always be enthusiastic about letting their data out of the warm casings of their hard drives.
And maybe with good reason. Context is everything. Yesterday, one government worker muttered into her coffee cup about how data can be easily misconstrued and misinterpreted. Last year’s scandal over the internet usage of OPS workers is a case in point (this particular public servant is online all the time for her work). Opening up data without putting it into context can be problematic, from an optics point of view of not worse.
And what about citizens with limited or no access to technology? The homeless are less likely to have Twitter accounts, and the voices of marginalized people are at risk of being silenced in this techno-happy open data dance party.
Finally (and here I go putting on my translator hat), if it’s to be useful for all Canadians, data has to be accessible across language and cultural barriers. Could the open data movement represent new opportunities for skilled translators, or will governments avoid spending the money and simply dump the data online, leaving it up to the private sector to pick and choose what the rest of us get to see?
I think the best quote of the day came from David Tallan of the OPS (one of the ‘troublemaking’ social intrapreneurs), who simply pointed out that it’s important to “focus on people, not technology.”
Hopefully Microsoft — not surprisingly, a major event sponsor — was listening.